Tuesday 4 June 2013

Oil spill in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

Around 10 000 barrels (slightly under 1.2 million liters) of crude oil leaked into the Coca River in eastern Ecuador following the rupture of the 30 year old Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline, operated by the state owned Petroecuador oil company. The river is a tributary of the Napa River, which in turn supplies water to the Amazon. It is also the main supply of fresh water to the town of Francisco de Orellana, which has a population of 60 000 and lies on the junction of the Coca and Napa rivers. A pumping station used by the town has been turned off, and people are being advised not to drink well water, while supplies of bottled water are brought in by truck. The spill is reported to have been caused by a mudslide on El Reventador Volcano.

Map showing the relative positions of the Trans Ecuadorian Pipeline and the Reventador volcano, from a report into damage caused to the pipeline by the volcano in a 1987 incident - suggesting this is not a new problem. Schuster et al. (1991).

The Trans Ecuador Pipeline carries crude from oil fields in the Ecuadorian Amazon to the port of Esmeraldas on the Pacific coast. The project was originally a joint project between US oil company Texaco and the Ecuadorian Government, but was taken over entirely by the Ecuadorians in 1990 following a series of environmental problems in the previously pristine rainforest. This does not seem to have improved the situation, with leaks remaining frequent in the area. The Ecuadorian government has been involved in a protracted legal dispute with Chevron, Texaco's parent company, for some years, with Ecuador claiming restitution for environmental damage on behalf of the people of the Amazon Basin, and Chevron refusing to settle on the grounds that much of the environmental damage has occurred since the government took over the operation. 

In May 2013 a court in Argentina froze Chevron's assets in that country over companies refusal to comply with legal rulings in Ecuador, potentially halting the company's planned exploitation of the Vaca Muerta shale formation in that country.

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